Cone Peak Marathon Loop

California’s spectacular natural landscape ranges from the Pacific coastline to the Sierra crest, each filled with many inspiring destinations and experiences. As the seasons shift into late autumn and winter I gravitate to coastal adventures. This time of year has reliably less fog along the immediate coast and interior locations are comfortably cooler. This is also the time of year when winter rains begin to revitalize the redwood forests.  One of my favorite regions for coastal scenery is the Ventana Wilderness along the Big Sur coastline. The premier destination within this vast wilderness is Cone Peak. Arguably the most aesthetic and complete route on Cone Peak is the “Cone Peak Marathon,” a classic lollipop loop from the ocean to the summit of 5,155 ft Cone Peak and back down via the Gamboa Trail and Stone Ridge Trail. This route thoroughly covers the trail network around Cone Peak and passes through three of the canyons formed by forks of Limekiln Creek. In addition, there are great views down the rugged and wild South Fork Devils Canyon.  The route showcases the wide variety of ecosystems on Cone Peak including coastal scrub, redwood forest, grassy meadows, oak woodland, chaparral, and a unique high elevation forest composed of Santa Lucia Fir and Sugar Pine forest. This is a top notch route in a stellar region! Strava route here.

As of this writing, the Vicente Flat Trail is in excellent condition all the way up to the Cone Peak Road. The route beings with about 1,200 feet of climbing over the first couple miles and then levels off as it rounds a corner into the Hare Canyon. Just before 4 miles from the trailhead, the trail makes a short descent to the bottom of Hare Canyon where the junction with the Stone Ridge Trail is reached after a creek crossing. Shortly after this junction, the Vicente Flat trail gets down to business with the steepest chunk of climbing between miles 5 and 7. Over these two miles, the trail ascends around 1,600 feet. The Vicente Flat trail ends at a gravel road that can be driven from the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. Turning uphill on the dirt road, the ascent is more gradual than the preceding steep climb out of hare Canyon, but it’s still a bit of a slog. After about a mile on the dirt road, you turn onto the Cone Peak Trail for the final chunk of climbing. The trail first makes a lengthy traverse beneath the summit and then switchbacks up Cone Peak’s South Ridge to a junction with the Summit Trail. The final set of switchbacks on the Summit Trail to the abandoned fire lookout are steeper once again but the spectacular views are a great distraction. The view from the summit is outstanding with a 360 degree panorama including the interior Ventana Wilderness and views for miles up and down the Big Sur coastline.

Back at the junction with the Summit Trail, turn left down the backside of Cone Peak. This section of trail is still called the Cone Peak Trail and passes through a section where trail crews recently cut through enormous Sugar Pine downfall. Descending off the backside of Cone Peak into the South Fork Devils Canyon is a treat with passage through a rare forest of Santa Lucia Fir, the rarest species of fir in the world. These beautiful conical trees are only found in small pockets at high elevations of the Santa Lucia Mountains.  Somewhat counter intuitively, the Santa Lucia Fir is not fire resistant and therefore fares best in areas of fireproof topography (i.e. rocky sheltered locations).  The backside of Cone Peak is a perfect example of this rocky and rugged, fireproof terrain and therefore contains one of the finest Santa Lucia Fir forests in existence. Ultimately, the Cone Peak Trail ends at Trail Spring Camp where it intersects the Gamboa Trail.  From Trail Spring commences a particularly pleasant stretch of single track traverses the hillside below Twin Peak all the way to a small pass along the West Ridge of Twin Peak. It is at this pass that the Gamboa Trail becomes the Strone Ridge Trail and descends into the West Fork of Limekiln Creek canyon. Extensive trail work was completed this year on the Gamboa and Stone Ridge trails removing a lot of brush and downfall. It should be noted that the tread on these trails is narrow and sometimes technical; generally not fast tread or terrain for running but they are runnable. In addition, the descent via the Stone Ridge Trail entails some deceiving climbs, including an ascent up to Stone Ridge and an ascent out of Limekiln Creek. Both of these climbs are not long, but any substantial climbing after the initial climb up Cone Peak can be taxing. All told, there is over 7,000 ft of climbing on this route. Stone Ridge is the most prominent feature in the region and includes an excellent direct route to the summit, the true “Sea to Sky.” A good chunk of the Stone Ridge Direct route is visible from the Stone Ridge Trail as it crosses Stone Ridge at around 2,200 ft and again from the slopes above Limekiln Creek. This winter I hope to visit Cone Peak during a relatively rare winter snow event.  With outstanding scenery, lots of vertical, and engaging trails, I will surely be back for more runs on Cone Peak soon. Strava route here.

Little Lakes Valley to Morgan Pass

The trailhead at Mosquito Flat in the Rock Creek area is one of the highest trailheads in the Sierra at just over 10,000 feet and provides easy access to wonderful hiking, climbing and trail running at Little Lakes Valley. The visitor less inclined to travel many miles will find quintessential High Sierra scenery within merely minutes from the trailhead. The sublime Little Lakes Valley includes over a dozen alpine lakes, and some are quite large in size belying its name, including Box Lake, Ruby Lake and Long Lake. The centerpiece peak at the head of the valley is impressively rugged Bear Creek Spire which provides a spectacular backdrop from many of the lakes. I have seen some truly amazing reflections in Marsh Lake and Long Lake. The easy accessibility of this area makes it one of the most popular trails in the eastern Sierra for hiking and gateway to many climbs and scrambles. On any nice summer weekend the main parking loop and overflow parking down the road will be filled to the rim. The vast majority of hikers follow the relatively flat trail through Little Lakes Valley to a turn around point at Chickenfoot Lake or Gem Lakes. Beyond, climbing and scrambling opportunities abound on Bear Creek Spire and the many neighboring peaks. Branching off just uphill from Mosquito Flat is the trail to Mono Pass, which is located on the Sierra Crest and includes great views into the rugged stretch of mountains including Mount Dade, Mount Abott, Mount Mills, and Ruby Peak.  Just beyond Mono Pass is an easy scramble through sand and talus to the summit of Mount Starr where there is a grand view of the region, featured on my blog in July. The photos below are from an afternoon trail run to Morgan Pass through Little Lakes Valley. The eight mile out-and-back through Little Lakes Valley to Morgan Pass makes for an excellent easy trail run with little elevation change and largely non-technical trail.  In fact, this is one of the few high elevation trails in the eastern Sierra that are very runnable.

Whitney to Langley

I don’t often visit the Whitney Zone due its long distance from the Bay Area (7 hours) and convoluted red tape associated with the permitting process. However, I’m always looking for new scenery to explore and parts of this region I have never seen. Snagging some last minute day use permits for the weekend, I came up with a couple good routes to tour the highlights of the region. One route was a point-to-point starting at Whitney Portal to Cottonwood Lakes taking me up the Mountaineer’s route on Whitney, followed by a traverse to Crabtree Pass, through Miter Basin, up the west face of Mount Langley, and finally down Old Army Pass through Cottonwood Lakes. For the second route I hoped to tour Tulainyo Lake with summits of The Cleaver, Mount Carillon, Mount Russell and the north Face of Whitney. The first objective (detailed in this blog post) went off without a hitch, but the second route was stymied by some ice and snow on the exposed class 3 section on Mount Russell’s east ridge. Turning around was a relatively easy personal decision as very exposed third class scrambling on slippery rock is out of my comfort zone with no technical gear. No doubt I will be back to finish off the second route, but I accomplished my primary goals of visiting the astoundingly beautiful Tulainyo Lake area (photos and more details in the next blog post) and the spectacular region between Whitney and Langley. Strava route here.

Driving from the Bay Area on Friday night with a short rest outside of Mammoth Lakes left me with little sleep on Saturday morning, but I was pumped and ready to go up Mount Whitney’s Mountaineer’s route departing the Portal just after 8:15 a.m. The N. Fork Lone Pine has largely become a trail, but since this was my first time up the drainage I managed to stray off the best use-path a couple times. Route knowledge will surely allow for a faster ascent next time. As I ascended above Upper Boy Scout Lake, I was particularly inspired and impressed by the massive pillars of the Whitney massif, especially Keeler Needle and Crooks Peak. I passed by Iceberg Lake and continued up rocks on the left side of the chute which merged with the primary chute where the rock became much more loose and tedious. I encountered some snow along the way that I carefully avoided. Once at the top of the Mountaineer’s I traversed across the north face to the summit plateau since the class 3 rock directly above looked slippery with snow and ice. I was at the summit 2h50m after starting; not bad for my first time with lots of photography stops. The Mountaineer’s route is definitely a more efficient route than the Whitney Trail.  See the above panorama for an annotation of the sweeping view from Whitney’s summit (click image for larger version). From Whitney’s summit, I went down the Whitney Trail/JMT and then tagged Mount Muir. There are a couple class 3 moves to contemplate, but once you know the route it takes a matter of minutes to ascend the pinnacle. Muir is one of the many “blips” on Whitney’s south ridge, but since it has prominence and tops out over 14,000 feet it is included in the select group of “14ers”, the subject of fixation among many mountain enthusiasts. From Mount Muir I went to Trail Crest and then ascended Discovery Pinnacle. While only a couple hundred feet above Trail Crest, Discovery Pinnacle had my favorite view of the day, including an unobstructed view of Hitchcock Lakes, Hitchcock Peak, the Kaweah Range, the Great Western Divide, the Whitney massif and points south. From Discovery Pinnacle I was expecting a straightforward descent into the cirque above upper Crabtree Lake that would deposit me just below Crabtree Pass, but I encountered a cliff band that required some navigation. Looking back at this cliff band from Crabtree Pass, I now know the most efficient route for next time which descends almost all the way to upper Crabtree Lake and then contours back up to Crabtree Pass. Descending from Crabtree Pass I first encountered some small tarns and then Lake 3,697 meters, a rather large alpine lake in a desolate setting of rock and granite. My route from this lake to Sky Blue Lake requires a bit of a circuitous route to get around a granite headwall. I stopped to photograph the small tarns with incredible scenery along the way including The Miter and the serrated ridgeline that composes Mount LeConte and Mount Corocoan. I was soon at the shores of aptly-named Sky Blue Lake with a tremendous view of The Miter, Miter Basin, and surrounding peaks. Travel from Sky Blue Lake into Miter Basin is very easy as the terrain is almost flat and composed of granite slabs and grassy meadows. A clump of southern foxtail pines is particularly picturesque set against the granite cliffs of The Miter, Mount LeConte and Mount Corocan. I had my doubts about the west face of Mount Langley, but committed to a chute that looked like it contained fairly solid rock. Indeed, travel was efficient up to the west ridge. However, once on the west ridge, the trip up Langley became an arduous slog through unstable gravel. Fortunately,the ridge grew more rocky the higher I went. A long walk across the summit plateau brought me to the breezy and cold summit. After snapping a few photos and signing the register I started to head down to Old Army Pass. Along the way I spotted a group of four Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep. They stopped to stare at me and then continued on their way across the desolate plateau; a surreal moment as the sun was beginning to set over the Sierra. I continued down through Old Army Pass and the Cottonwood Lakes and pulled out my headlamp for the last few miles to the Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead. I arrived at 7:50 pm and it was already totally dark, a sign that winter is fast approaching. The Whitney to Langley traverse through Crabtree Pass and Miter Basin was an excellent route. I look forward to climbing Mount Pickering and visiting Iridescent Lake next time I do this route.

Caribou Lakes, Trinity Alps

The Caribou Lakes area is one of the finest regions of the Trinity Alps with fantastic scenery and beautiful alpine lakes. The trailhead is at the end of a long and slow gravel road that is quite rocky in spots; passable in low-clearance sedans but caution must be exercised. The extra effort required to reach the trailhead makes the Caribou Lakes area less popular than Canyon Creek Lakes, but in my opinion the trail-accessible terrain is more scenic. However, on Labor Day Monday there were many backpackers departing the lakes as we were arriving so this region is not undiscovered. Lucky for us, everybody was leaving so we had the entire basin to ourselves by the time we arrived. There are two trails that access Caribou Lakes: the Old Caribou Trail and the New Caribou Trail. In general, the New Caribou Trail is significantly longer but contains a very gradual grade largely traversing the mountainside. In contrast, the Old Caribou Trail is more direct, but steeper and contains more elevation gain reaching a high point that is only a few hundred feet short of Caribou Mountain’s summit. Overall, both trails are worthwhile and make for an excellent figure-8 loop to visit the basin. On the way in we took the New Caribou Trail and on the way out the Old Caribou Trail.

Caribou Lakes and Snowslide Lake are situated in a spectacular granite bowl underneath Caribou Mountain. All of the lakes look very inviting for a swim on a warm day (a cool breeze kept us out of the water on this day). Upper Caribou Lake is the largest lake in the Trinity Alps and is particularly scenic with an amphitheater of white granite surrounding its eastern shore. From Upper Caribou Lake we continued up a less-used path to a small notch along Sawtooth Ridge. From here, we continued along the ridge crest west to a rock outcropping that we scrambled. This point features a stupendous view into the heart of the rugged Trinity Alps including Sawtooth Peak, Caesar Peak, Thompson Peak and the Stuart Fork Canyon.  We could see Emerald Lake, Sapphire Lake and Mirror Lake on one side of the ridge and the Caribou Lakes on the other. A magical panorama!  On the way back we enjoyed an extremely pleasant walk through the Caribou Lakes basin and then took the steep climb of the Old Caribou Trail to Point 8,118 ft.  This point features a magnificent view of the Trinity Alps and Caribou Lakes basin.  The Caribou Lakes area far exceeding my expectations and is a real gem.  Strava GPS route here.

Red Slate Mountain

The region between Rock Creek and Mammoth Lakes hasn’t drawn my attention in the past. I’ve always thought the peaks in this sector of the High Sierra are loose choss piles (at least that’s how they look from Hwy 395), devoid of the granite ruggedness found in other parts of the range. While Red Slate Mountain is arguably a choss pile, I was pleasantly surprised on my first visit to this region finding gorgeous scenery and many options for future trips. The geology of this area is especially fascinating with a palette of rock colors ranging from blazing red to pale white. Along the way we even spotted purple and green rocks. The interesting geology of the region is reflected in the series of photos below. In fact, Red Slate Mountain’s neighbor is aptly name Red & White Mountain with red and white striations throughout its face. Just to the west is the Silver Divide with quintessential gray and white granite I am accustomed to in the High Sierra. While Red Slate Mountain is not an interesting climb via the class 2 route from McGee Pass, the view from the summit is outstanding. My favorite vantage was looking down at Lake Dorothy, Constance Lake, and the many other lakes of the Convict Creek basin. The other highlight of the trip was passing by a triumvirate of lakes leading up to McGee Pass, each becoming progressively smaller and more desolate as one ascends toward the pass. Big McGee Lake is by far the largest and most scenic with clumps of alpine trees surrounding its shores and Mount Crocker’s north face in the background. Gorgeous wildflower meadows above Big McGee Lake lead to Little McGee Lake tucked in beneath the cliffs of Red & White Mountain. “Mini” McGee is the final tarn below McGee Pass, a desolate place with virtually no vegetation to speak of. This 20 mile roundtrip route would make for an excellent high altitude run as a “one-up” with 6,200+ foot gain, but all downhill on the way back.  Strava route here.

Mount Hoffmann

Mount Hoffmann is geographically near the center of Yosemite National Park. Along with Tuolumne Peak, it forms a small subrange between Tenaya Canyon and Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne with impressive prominence from other high regions of Yosemite. It therefore comes as no surprise that Mount Hoffman’s 10,850 foot summit has one of the best views in the park. The 360 degree panorama (only interrupted by radio tower equipment) includes the Cathedral Range, Tuolumne Meadows, Northern Yosemite, Tenaya Lake, and a view down Tenaya Canyon to Half Dome.  Close at hand is an interesting rock pinnacle known as Hoffmann’s thumb. When the May Lake road is open, it’s merely a 3 mile hike to the summit with around 2,000 feet of elevation gain. The first 1.2 miles is along a well maintained trail (part of the High Sierra Camps Loop) to lovely May Lake. From May Lake, the trail becomes more of a use path, although still very well defined as Hoffmann is a popular destination. The views continue improve as one ascends with subalpine slopes opening up to broad wildflower meadows beneath the summit. The final summit area is achieved via a brief scramble. On this day there was a group of senior women hikers from Nagoya, Japan who reached the summit just after we arrived. We helped celebrate with them (see last photo).